An average United States citizen learns how to swim.
Right now I'm slowly making my way through The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I say slow because I read about as fast as slow-to-mid-level student of the third grade, and if that isn't enough of a hindrance, the object itself is a pretty impressive tome of somewhere around 1100 pages. Still, even a person as dense as myself is forced to pause for a second.
"There's something going on here," I muse to myself, "that reads a little funny."
Some further thoughts occur. In Doyles' stories, Sherlock Holmes is a very shrewd mind capable of deducing a number of things because he treats his mind like an attic. As he states,
"you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying has hands upon it."A novel thought, and one that becomes a theme in Doyle's stories.
His epistemology, extracted from various comments and plot lines, must read something like this: There are too many things in the world to know, so many in fact that it would be impossible to learn even a fraction of them, so the person who is truly wise will pick one specialty and will have no concern for anything else. In true late-enlightenment fashion, these specialties are not always bound by traditional disciplines. Holmes has perfected the art of solving crimes, and even the word perfected might be an understatement. In order to do so, he had to take relevant data from Botany, Geology, Chemistry, Anatomy, and a number of other traditional fields, but as a student in any of them, Watson tells us, he would be limited at best.
Many other characters become the victims of depending too much on one discipline. Lestrade, a Scotland Yard detective who is energetic and good at the physical task of gathering evidence, sometimes doesn't know what he's looking at once he's got it. Many of the criminals have studied some profession or another, but end up getting caught because they have no consideration for the art of crime. And that is exactly how Doyle thinks of it, as an art-form.
Professor Moriarty, Holmes' arch-villian, is not psychologically disturbed, did not come from a bad home, and is a functioning member of society. He turns to crime because, as he studied the field the exact same way Holmes did, he found that he would rather use his knowledge to his own advantage and not for the aid of others. There is no indication that he is less knowledgeable than Sherlock Holmes, and that is what makes him the most dangerous.
So what makes an average guy like me hesitate? Well, outside of the fact that in the US criminals are archetypically shown as being somehow motivated to crime by psychological problems, fits of rage, or mere stupidity (perhaps a mixture of the three), and rarely have any claim to knowledge, our standard detective is a bit of a cad. On CSI our detectives can be seen labouring over a case for twelve hours a day, studying all the evidence, cataloging the minutia, memorizing it, taking everything into account before finding the deranged person who was not operating rationally at the time. Epistemologically, that says something rather backwards in our view of humanity, perhaps something like this: In order to gain knowledge, you must study hard, follow the methods you were taught in school, and work really long hours (or else you're just some crazy and being a crazy means you're also probably a criminal).
Considering that Holmes very rarely has a case he does not solve in three days or less, a side-by-side comparison says something about our method of attaining success. In our view, if you go through the process that you've been taught, you will succeed. In Doyle's view, it takes more than bookwork (and more than an adversary, really) to succeed, it takes an intentional narrowing of one's focus and a concerted effort to clean out all other things over a lifetime. It also takes the imagination to see a new study between the established fields that are taught to everyone else.
The difference in ideology is noticeable in reality, and I have to say I'm a little worried. Our typical media impressions appear to reinforce the institutions of education that are becoming rapidly outdated, and telling kids to study hard isn't enough anymore to ensure their success. Further, we appear to be telling people that you don't necessarily have to be smart to hold a job, you just have to be willing to work a lot of hours, and if that is true, our corporations are going to hit some major road-blocks when all they have left are automatons in their leadership roles. Thinking between established fields to find new technologies, new methods, and new ideas are what has made the United States the economic force that it is. Teaching kids that they have to develop a creative mind and apply that creativity to their studies, not just get good grades, and that they have to take charge of their own education, puts more responsibility on their shoulders and forces them to learn. Instead of teaching our society at large that they only need to sit back and take notes, I would rather teach them, as Holmes teaches Watson, that in order to succeed, "you need a little imagination." Does that notion read a little funny?